Edward Snowden, the former US spy agency contractor turned whistleblower, is still on the run from the US authorities, and remains in the Moscow airport that he arrived to from Hong Kong on June 23.
Snowden leaked details about an NSA datamining tool called ‘Boundless Informant’ to the Guardian newspaper, in what is one of the most damaging leaks in US history. Snowden left behind his $200,000 job in Hawaii, and met journalists in a Hong Kong hotel to reveal the information.
Boundless Informant allowed the NSA to collect and categorise records of computer and telephone communications, and then map by country where this information was coming from, thereby knowing when and how often an individual was communicating with people from a certain country.
Most of the NSA intelligence gathered was from the Muslim world, with 14 billion reports gathered on Iran, 13.5 billion on Pakistan, 12.7 billion on Jordan, and 7.66 billion on Egypt.
The leak is extremely embarrassing to the US Government, with the revelations coming after senior US officials had previously denied that Government agencies spied on US citizens’ communications.
In March, Senator Ron Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, at a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, about the matter. “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Wyden asked. No, Sir,” was the explicit reply from Clapper.
The Obama Administration now face some tough questions from a US public angry at the latest revelations.
Judith Emmel, a spokeswoman for the NSA, denied that the leaks were evidence of a cover-up. “[The] NSA has consistently reported – including to Congress – that we do not have the ability to determine with certainty the identity or location of all communications within a given communication. That remains the case.”
For his part, Obama said that the US Congress knew about the NSA program, and that the American public should trust those elected on their behalf. “These are the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress and they are being fully briefed on the programs.”
Meanwhile, the British Government has faced pressure following suggestions that the NSA handed information gathered on Britons using the Boundless Informant tool to the British Government. Britain has said that all monitoring of communications by the UK GCHQ security agency is legal, but importantly did not confirm or deny the reports of it receiving data from the NSA.
British Foreign Minister, William Hague, was quick to come out and speak on the topic after the leaks were published. “The idea that in GCHQ people are sitting around working out how to circumvent a UK law with another agency in another country is fanciful. It is nonsense … Of course we share a lot of information with the United States. But if information arrives in the UK from the US it is governed by our laws.”
He also sought to reassure the British public on the matter. “If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country … you’ll never be aware of all the things those agencies are doing to stop your identity being stolen or to stop a terrorist blowing you up tomorrow. But if you are a would be terrorist or the centre of a criminal network or a foreign intelligence agency trying to spy on Britain you should be worried because that is what we work on and we are on the whole quite good at it.”
The options for the man at the centre of the political storm, Snowden, are rapidly being reduced, as it becomes harder for him to find a safe haven that is willing to provide him with asylum and risk the wrath of the US. It appears that Snowden had been planning to travel to Cuba, Ecuador, or Venezuela, with Ecuador seen as the most likely destination. However, Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, has said that his Government had made no decision on the matter, and said that he would seek the US’s counsel on the matter.
“When he (Snowden) arrives on Ecuadorean soil, if he arrives … of course, the first opinions we will seek are those of the United States,” Correa said.
The comments will hardly be welcomed by Snowden, who has had his passport revoked by the US authorities, and who is presumed to still be in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
If he is captured by the US, he will most likely be prosecuted and face a fate similar to other whistleblowers, including the famed Wikileaks whistleblower, Bradley Manning, who was detained in May 2010, and whose trial only began in February 2013.